How did Tory Owen Paterson go from avoiding suspension to resigning in 24 hours?

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Owen Paterson. (PA Wire)
Owen Paterson. (PA Wire)

Former Tory MP Owen Paterson has resigned after a Government U-turn would have prompted a fresh vote on his suspension over the breaching of lobbying rules.

But 24 hours ago it seemed as if Mr Paterson, who had represented North Shropshire since 1997, may have been saved by allies who said the whole standards procedure needed to be overhauled.

Here, the PA news agency looks at what changed.

  • How did this all begin?

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    Parliamentary Standards Commissioner Kathryn Stone found after an investigation that Mr Paterson had lobbied on behalf of two companies which had paid him more than £100,000 a year – Randox, and Lynn’s Country Foods.

    In serious breaches such as this, the Commissioner refers cases to the Commons Standards Committee a crossbench group of MPs and members of the public, who can then decide on a sanction.

    The Commons Standards Committee said his actions were an “egregious” breach of the rules on paid advocacy by MPs and recommended that he should be suspended for 30 sitting days, or six weeks.

    But Mr Paterson rejected the Commissioner’s findings, accusing her of making up her mind before she had even spoken to him and that the investigation had been a contributing factor in the suicide of his wife, Rose.

“This is a biased process and not fair,” he said.

  • Why did the case end up in the Commons?

Labour MP Chris Bryant arrives at the Houses of Parliament in London (PA Archive)
Labour MP Chris Bryant arrives at the Houses of Parliament in London (PA Archive)

Although the committee recommends the sanction, this must be approved by MPs.

The current chairman of the committee, Labour MP Chris Bryant warned against voting the committee’s report – and therefore the sanction – down in what would be an unprecedented move in the committee’s roughly 36-year history.

But Leader of the House Jacob Rees-Mogg had said there was “precedence” for amending a motion to suspend an MP, saying it was last done in 1947.

  • Why did the MP think he might escape suspension?

John Whittingdale. (PA Media)
John Whittingdale. (PA Media)

Allies tabled an amendment to the motion which would have approved his suspension to say that instead, a new committee – chaired by former Culture Secretary John Whittingdale – should be set up to overhaul the whole standards process, but also review Mr Paterson’s case specifically.

Tory MPs were whipped to vote for the amendment, which was put down by Dame Andrea Leadsom, but it still only passed with a slim majority of 18 as many Conservatives abstained.

The subsequent vote on the amended motion then also passed.

  • What did Boris Johnson say?

Prime Minister Boris Johnson leaves 10 Downing Street, London. (PA Wire)
Prime Minister Boris Johnson leaves 10 Downing Street, London. (PA Wire)

The Prime Minister was insistent that the rule changes were not about Mr Paterson’s individual case – despite the amendment specifically including his name and being put forward on a motion concerning him.

He said there were concerns about the right of appeal in the process, and that he wanted to ensure high standards were maintained.

  • What went wrong?

Pressure began to mount on the Government as the move was seen as a ploy to protect one of their own.

Labour launched attacks focussing on Tory sleaze, and even Conservative MPs said they thought there had been a serious misstep in how the situation had been handled.

Less than 24 hours after the vote, Mr Rees-Mogg announced a U-turn, and No 10 said there would be a fresh vote on Mr Paterson’s suspension and then they would separately look into introducing appeal mechanisms.

  • What happened to Mr Paterson?

According to the BBC, Mr Paterson had not been told about the reversal by No 10 and found out when he received a telephone call from one of the broadcaster’s journalists while he was in the supermarket.

Shortly afterwards, he released a statement announcing he would be resigning.

  • What is the fallout?

If Mr Paterson and No 10 had accepted his suspension, he may have faced a by-election through a recall petition but with a 22,949 majority, it is likely he would have won it.

Now, Downing Street has endured a damaging news cycle, allegations of sleaze, and will now definitely have to fight for North Shropshire with a new candidate.

  • Why has this happened?

Downing Street has said this was always about ensuring the standards process were robust, but Boris Johnson’s former chief advisor Dominic Cummings has alleged the PM has it out for the Commissioner due to his own record.

Mr Johnson has been admonished four times by the Commissioner – three of those during Ms Stone’s tenure – and a decision on whether she will launch an investigation into the initial financing of the redecoration of his Downing Street flat is due.

Many of the Tory MPs who signed the initial amendment, or who voted for it, had also fallen foul of the Commissioner.

And the Business Secretary Kwasi Kwarteng told Sky News on Thursday: “I think it’s difficult to see what the future of the Commissioner is, given the fact that we’re reviewing the process, and we’re overturning and trying to reform this whole process, but it’s up to the Commissioner to decide her position.”

But the PM’s official spokesman said: “The Prime Minister’s focus is on, as he set out yesterday, securing a proper appeal for this process, as there are other walks of life.”

He added: “The Prime Minister fully recognises the strength of feeling in the House and that there is not cross-party support for the changes that were seeking to be made, and therefore understands that it’s right to change the approach and to decouple those two issues.”

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